Mark Steyn

On the Town

Indiana Cole and his Temple of Tunes

Cole Porter died fifty years ago this week - October 15th 1964, in Santa Monica. His last years were neither happy nor productive. His wife Linda had succumbed to emphysema a decade earlier, and in 1958, as a consequence of a terrible riding accident in the late Thirties, he had to have his leg amputated. After which he never wrote another song. Half-a-century on, his name remains potent in a way few of his contemporaries can claim - that's to say, if you put "the new Cole Porter revue" on a Broadway or West End marquee, it will still sell tickets. They even made a new biopic about him not so long ago, with Kevin Kline in the role. So for our Saturday showbiz feature, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on the uncommon Cole, subsequent to last week's Song of the Week and just ahead of this week's:

In the motion picture Hannah And Her Sisters, there's a scene in the Café Carlyle in which Bobby Short, tuxedoed and buttonholed, gives a joyful, tremulous rendition of "I'm In Love Again". Woody Allen's character looks rapt; his date, a devotée of punk, yawns and snorts her way through the number. "You don't deserve Cole Porter," he tells her despairingly, as they part on the sidewalk.

These days, who does? Yet, in a pop culture wholly alien to him, he retains a cachet among the caterwaulers that Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers or even Irving Berlin can't match. He embodies what the middle-aged rockers are looking for when they make their inevitable "Great American Songbook" albums. His enduring luster is all the more surprising because, far more than his contemporaries, Porter's songs seem explicitly tailored to a very particular socio-cultural moment, when Mrs Astor and Irene Bordoni jostled for attention in his breezy laundry list lyrics with Pepsodent and Phenolax. If he was writing for posterity, you'd think he'd have eased up on the society-page name-dropping.

And yet the best songs - an awful lot of them - are forever: "Night And Day", "I Get A Kick Out Of You", "In The Still Of The Night", "I've Got You Under My Skin":

I'd sacrifice anything come what might
For the sake of having you near
In spite of a warning voice
That comes in the night
And repeats and repeats in my ear
'Don't you know, little fool? You never can win...

There's nothing clever or exhibitionist about that. In fact, it looks a bit over-ripe on the page. But the music justifies it, and seals the deal. It's Porter's own particular combination of obsession and style. The latter's the easy part: We close our eyes and see it still - a marbled, art deco hotel suite, across whose balcony "Let's Do It" drifts in the chill still of the night. As the Little River Band's 1978 hit "Reminiscing" rather awkwardly put it:

Cole Porter's tune
Made us dance across the room

- a couplet which, even as it flatteringly acknowledges the master, reveals in that tin-eared false rhyme how little its authors have learned from him. He gets quoted a lot in songs. Who can forget the Swedish popgroup Gyllene Tider's hit "Flickan i en Cole Porter-sÄng" ("That Girl from the Cole Porter Song")? Porter has become a symbol for an entire sensibility. He was, measured against Noel Coward, a rotten singer and, against George Gershwin, a lousy pianist, yet it was his crackly recording of "You're The Top" which opened each performance of the recent Broadway revival of Anything Goes. Perhaps it's because he's such an extreme personification of Broadway high-style that his legend has outlasted it.

Besides, even in his lifetime, he was a curiosity. Although he received more formal training than any other popular composer of his day, he was more often praised for the flashy pyrotechnics of his lyrics. And, although he seemed to write mainly for the amusement of his Park Avenue smart set, he was second only to Irving Berlin as America's highest-earning songwriter. A few years back, an Andrew Lloyd Webber profile began with "Not even Cole Porter enjoyed so much success so young". But the point about Porter is that his career never got going until middle-age. Kern, Berlin, Rodgers & Hart were all well established by their twenties. George Gershwin managed to fit in hundreds of songs plus Rhapsody In Blue, An American In Paris and a piano concerto by the time he died at the age of 38. By that age, Porter was just enjoying his first Broadway success with his score for Paris: his entire catalogue of hits lay ahead.

He was born on June 9th 1891 - not, like most songwriters of his day, in the ethnic melting pot of New York's Lower East Side, but in Peru. And not Peru, South America, which would have been odd, but Peru, Indiana, which is even odder. Indiana is not without its songwriting giants: there's Rose Hartwick Thorpe, whose ballad "Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight" was one of the big hits of 1867; and, of course, Paul Dresser, composer of "My Gal Sal (a peculiar sort of a pal)" and "On The Banks Of The Wabash Far Away", and the King of Tin Pan Alley before the immigrant New Yorkers took over. Certainly, Porter never saw himself as a Hoosier writer, even though back in Peru they were proud enough of him for Arnold's Candy Store to start selling Cole Porter Fudge.

One of the composer's few musical acknowledgments of his background came in an early song (1916) called "Lima" - not Lima, Peru but Lima, Indiana, pronounced Ly-ma:

Li-ma! Li-ma!
Hear me callin', for I'm a-fallin' for you!
I simply quiver to drive my flivver
Along that lazy hazy crazy Wabash River.

Even by that age, Porter had abandoned interest in any river west of the Hudson. In his career, he wrote only a handful of non-urban songs, most notably "Don't Fence Me In", a spoof cowboy ballad which enough cowboys thought was the real McCoy to make it a hit:

I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses...

Earlier, from Hitchy-Koo Of 1919, there was "An Old-Fashioned Garden", whose principal melodic phrase turned up a few years later in "Yes, We Have No Bananas". It was a great mainstay of ladies' luncheon clubs in the years after the Great War. We no longer have those kinds of ladies' luncheon club songs, mainly because we no longer have those kinds of ladies' luncheons or, come to think of it, those kinds of ladies. But it was big business ninetysomething years ago:

I saw an old-fashioned missus
Getting old-fashioned kisses
In that old-fashioned garden
From an old-fashioned beau...

In the borders of said old-fashioned garden were phlox, hollyhocks, eglantines and columbines all blooming, in defiance of the seasons, at the same time: You can take a Porter culture to horticulture, but you can't make him drink therefrom. He was always more engaged by the mating habits of birds and bees ("Let's Do It", "Let's Misbehave" et al) than he was by the flora and fauna. But, even so, it's still difficult to imagine anything less Porteresque. It's rather like discovering that, years before "Blowin' In The Wind", Bob Dylan had written "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?".

Yet, even amongst those adolescent efforts, the mawkish ballads of the Indiana old school and the pseudo-Gilbertian patter numbers, we can see the emergence of what would become his trademarks. In a 1913 college song, "It Pays To Advertise" - "I'd walk a mile for that schoolgirl complexion/Palmolive Soap will do it every time" - he was already demonstrating the ear for popular expressions that would later spur such titles as "Just One Of Those Things". By the Twenties, the lyricist's art of compressed wit was firmly in place in songs like "Find Me A Primitive Man":

I don't mean the kind that belongs to a club
But the kind that has a club that belongs to him...

Although he was the kind that belongs to a club, the latter half of that couplet sums up Porter's own taste in men.

Throughout this period, Porter, unlike his musical comrades, was under no pressure to write: Walter Winchell's announcement of his marriage - "Boy with one million weds girl with two million" - tells the whole story. And in those days two million was a lot of dough. Porter himself felt the burthen of ease. He thought he would never be able to write genuinely popular songs - until one day he told Richard Rodgers that he'd stumbled on the formula. What was it, Rodgers wondered.

"Simplicity itself," said Porter. "I'll write Jewish tunes."

And so, in a way, he did. Except for Arthur Schwartz and a couple of the operetta boys, he was the only Broadway composer to write in the minor key - brooding chromatic sinuous melodies that warmed and deepened his nonchalent lyrics. That's the magic ingredient many other exhibitionist rhymesters miss, and which kept him in business from 1929 till that leg amputation three decades later. As Rodgers noted, "It is surely one of the ironies of the musical theatre that, despite the abundance of Jewish composers, the one who has written the most enduring 'Jewish' music should be an Episcopalian millionaire who was born on a farm in Peru, Indiana."

~Mark writes about Cole Porter in his classic book Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, and about Porter's song "I've Got You Under My Skin" in Mark Steyn's American Songbook. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the Steyn store.

from On the Town, October 11, 2014


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